Headship viewed from a distance

Oh, for a sense of perspective during term time! I don’t know about you, but it is only after a few days of downtime during a much-needed holiday – and even then it doesn’t usually come until the final day – that I am able to sift through the daily hullabaloo of school leadership and see from a distance what is important, what is urgent, what can wait and what, quite frankly, I should not be getting involved in.   

The thing about school leadership is that everything appears important and everything seems to require an immediate decision from me. I begin every term in strategic stance, focused on the long view, guided by our School Development Plan and SEF. I quickly descend into short-sighted operational mode – unable to see the wood for the trees and trying, often to the detriment of my health, to solve every problem that is thrown through my office door and which lands on my desk with a thud.

This is not to say that my operational mode is in anyway tainted by a messianic complex. I do not believe, and never have done, that I am indispensable, that I am the drive wheel of my school and without which all progress will grind to a halt. Of course it won’t! But if you give the impression of being a pro-active leader, across everything and everyone, then don’t be surprised if colleagues are happy to ‘leave it with you’ after every meeting or chance conversation in a corridor.

Years ago (and I realise I’m showing my age) I enjoyed watching Crackerjack. At the end of the show a hapless contestant would see how many prizes they could hold whilst being hurled cabbages for every wrong answer they gave. Cabbages came and they had to catch them without dropping the more valuable stuff in their hands.

I’m not doing that any more. If someone wants to throw a cabbage (problem) at me, I shall steel myself and be bold enough to say that I already have my hands full. I shall cross the Rubicon and – I shudder to even say the word – delegate.

Someone once told me that the Head should only do what only the Head can do. I have always scoffed at that maxim, preferring to lead by example: if a toilet has needed unblocking, I’ve done it; if a duty has been missed, I’ve done it; and if a lesson has lacked a teacher I have tried to cover it myself. Again, not in messianic mood – the Head to the rescue – just trying to do what’s best for the school and be a team player.

But, with the luxury of perspective, afforded by some rare downtime right now, I have concluded that if I always pick up the dropped ball because I think no one else will, then no one else ever will.

I have resolved to start the new term looking after myself and limiting the number of cabbages I carry. I need to retain a clear view of the long road ahead. After all, who else is driving?

I will continue to chop vegetables when the chef is off sick, or litter-pick the playground because frankly I enjoy those moments of reflection. But I will try hard to bounce a couple of cabbages back if the thrower appears to be carrying less than me. Investing in staff – empowering them to make a decision, take an action and solve something themselves – should, I hope, show that I trust them and I believe in them, which I do. I would rather a colleague took the initiative and in the end got it slightly wrong than felt unable to tackle any problem and bring them all to me for a decision.

Self-care in leadership is not a self-indulgence. We are not super-human and we have exactly the same needs as everyone else – we need headspace, time to crack on with our own to-do list and, most importantly, an entitlement to the same work-life balance as everyone else. We are paid a leadership salary not simply because we work longer hours than everyone else, or carry more cabbages, but because we have the experience and the expertise to drive the bus and because our neck is on the line if it breaks down. ‘Don’t distract me while I’m driving’ should be a sign I wear around my neck, though I doubt that would be received well in some quarters.    

I am lucky indeed. I have committed and hard-working staff. They show tremendous care for the children and they work hard on their own to-do lists every day. But I must try my hardest to avoid the mantle of ‘officer in charge of decisions’; to be so is to micro-manage staff and to push my own ever-growing to-do list into the late evenings and weekends – and my family does not deserve that. I may be dispensable at work but I still believe I am indispensable at home.  

Here goes. Good luck everyone.

Self-care is not self-indulgence

American educator and author, Dr Todd Whitaker tells us, ‘The best part about teaching is that it matters. The hardest part about teaching is that it matters everyday.’

This is so true. During my twenty-one years in teaching and school leadership, the greatest motivation for me was knowing (or hoping) that I was moving the dial, making a difference, improving the life chances of my pupils. This is both a privilege and a burden of responsibility everyday. You can’t have a day in teaching when you go easy on yourself – take a few extra coffee breaks, catch up with some quiet paper work. Finish early.

Whatever you do, whatever you say, and especially how you say it, matters; and it matters because you are acting as model learner for the young people in front of you, demonstrating positive attitudes and behaviours for effective learning, for life itself. As educators we project unshakeable belief in our pupils and we never miss an opportunity to help them feel better about themselves. It is, as so often said, all about the children.

But it is precisely this mantra that often leads us to neglect our own health and wellbeing. In term time, self-care seems a self-indulgence, doesn’t it. We wait until the holidays to ‘come up for air’ and re-discovery some equilibrium, before the school submarine dives once again for another term.

But it’s not a self-indulgence to look after ourselves. If we are drawn to putting the children first, then we owe it to them to ensure they have the best version of us in front of them; just as we owe it to our families and partners too.  

When I was teaching, I still managed to go on occasional family holidays with my wife and our four children. I know I was there, because I can see my face in the family photos, on the campsite, along the promenade, sitting on a dockside with a crabbing net. But can I remember each actual holiday itself? My recollections are patchy. I was there in body, but I was forever thinking about school: the children, the curriculum, the staff meetings, the never-ending assessments. Our Hippocratic oath is to act in loco parentis. We love our pupils and that is a difficult thing to switch off when term ends.

If I were starting again as a newly-qualified teacher, or starting a new leadership post, I like to think I would not be beset with the same guilt if I neglected the books for one evening, or didn’t try to respond to every email before the end of the day.

I would value my own health and wellbeing a little bit more. And I don’t think I would be alone in this. More people are talking about how we traverse the emotional landscape as adults, how we manage our wellbeing, how we stay positive.

Of course, you wouldn’t know this from reading the new Early Career Framework or ITT Core Content for trainees. You would be forgiven for still believing it’s all about knowledge and skills in teaching. If you’re struggling it’s because you need to boost your professional capital or professional currency. I don’t like these terms; they have their origins in the world of finance – they are measurable, accountable. But the craft of teaching runs so much deeper than this. It is not just what you know that counts, it is also what you can do with what you know, and that is inextricably linked to how you feel. Educationalist Eric Jensen says, ‘How we feel is what’s real, it’s the link to what we think.’

I celebrate the new initiatives and services that are being devised to support teachers in their early careers. But the apparent lack of recognition of the ‘whole person’ behind the professional skills is lamentable. For any training to be truly sustainable – and it needs to be if teachers are going to stay in this important profession for more than a couple of years – it needs to reach beyond this relentless focus on evidence-based exemplary practice, and start equipping and permitting teachers to manage their own health, wellbeing and motivation. Being a better teacher – with advanced skills and excellent classroom management – almost certainly helps you to stay more positive and achieve greater self-efficacy, that’s true. But to be a skilled practitioner is only half the story; to be a happy, motivated and optimistic teacher, one needs to feel like a whole person too.

As we look towards the end of term – still some weeks to go for many, of course – I hope that teachers are able to shake off the common misconception that they are not as good at this job as they ought to be and that they are defined more by their professional skills than their character, their optimism or their joie de vivre. Immeasurable and invisible perhaps, but no less important.

Teaching is a craft, an art form, with skills that can be honed and perfected. The ECF, the ITT Core Content and the new NPQs will certainly help you to become that skilled practitioner you think everyone else already is. But staying in teaching and, dare I say, flourishing in the job, requires self-care, self-regulation and the resolve to say ‘I matter as much as my pupils do.’  

Photo by Emma Bauso from Pexels

I don’t scoff at routines like I used to

Ok, so it may just be my age, but for someone who spent years avoiding predictable paths and wriggling out of routines, I have found myself drawn to daily rituals of late.

It is impossible to calculate the impact of 2020 on all our lives and all our futures, so I won’t attempt to do so in a short blog. Suffice to say this past year has brought disruption and worry, even existential threats the like of which none of us have seen before. We have all been at sea, albeit in very different sized boats, swept by the changing and inequitable tides and at the mercy of elements beyond our own control. When the shore looms into view, we unexpectedly tack and find ourselves staring at the horizon again. It’s been a test of endurance and patience.  Certainty and control – those two elements schools so badly need in order to function, just like financial institutions depend on them – have been in short supply.  

Perhaps this is why I am drawn to those reassuring rituals that I once saw as unnecessary roadblocks to my free-flowing creativity and joie de vie. These same routines fill a dearth in certainty and control. As a former teacher and school leader, I have always recognised the importance of regular routines and diarised days, of course, but I have never really felt comfortable with predictable activity. Timetables demotivate me.  

But this has changed of late. I am searching for things I can rely on, and things I can control. I am anchored by the knowledge that every morning I will stir my porridge and pour it into my favourite bowl. I will have an espresso in my favourite coffee cup. I will exercise. I will listen to Radio 4 and feel frustrated when interviewers interrupt and politicians prevaricate. I will fill my drinking bottle with peach squash, pack my brief case and drive to work, listening to Thought for the Day sat in traffic.

I will look forward to my cup of Empress Grey around eleven and treat myself to a reduced sugar forest fruit crispy slice. I will go for a walk in the park at lunchtime. Rock and roll, I hear you cry. A wild life.

But the value of these anchoring points is now revealed to me. They punctuate moments of frustration and disappointment, pleasant surprises, unexpected doubts and demotivations, the highs and lows of work. Things I think will go well may not, while other meetings I’m dreading will run without hiccup. Hopes will be dashed, while other fears will be rendered futile after all. Exciting events will be planned and then postponed and then cancelled altogether. Other unexpected opportunities will drift by and excite me. It’s harder to predict now.

I can’t say I have the adrenalin that I once had; sitting on zoom all day is a poor substitute for the thrill of racing to the tube for a face-to-face meeting across London, or standing on a conference stage, or shaking hands with colleagues and clients in a bar somewhere. But I find satisfaction in other ways: clearing the inbox, completing an article, sharing attendees’ insightful comments on a webinar.

There will be countless other people, front-line workers, whose daily challenges bring far more stress and heartache than mine. They will feel the lack of certainty and control more acutely than me, but they just march on. I admire these people enormously. I salute them. I do not have a monopoly on stress or loneliness in this virtual world; many others will be suffering too and longing for real time events with real people. It has taken just a year to change our work practices, but it takes a million years to change our species, so I’m learning to be kinder on myself if I struggle to adapt to a new paradigm as quickly as I would like. My neck aches in every zoom.      

What I can say, with some degree of certainty, is that whatever happens today, whether unexpected or planned, exciting or worrying, or just plain dull and monotonous, tomorrow morning will find me stirring my porridge at the usual time. And I’m comfortable with that.

So what anchors you?

Who needs to catch up?

My children received their school reports today. Listed in the usual order of academic subjects, they present neatly calibrated effort and attainment grades for this past half term. I applaud my children’s teachers for their herculean efforts in ensuring continuity of learning – they really have shown such determination to maintain ‘business as usual’ against all the odds. But I have to say that the grades in front of me don’t give an accurate account of my children’s growth this past year. That is not the fault of their teachers; academic reports like these are from a different era.

Over the last twelve months, our nation’s school pupils have sat alongside their parents and carers, as equal observers, watching the news and trying to process and assimilate horrifying headlines that would not have been believable twelve months ago. Our children have steered their way through uncharted waters, learning as they go, adapting, pivoting and accommodating, and forever curbing their expectations whilst reigning in their hopes.

They have developed resilience, resourcefulness, digital literacy skills, creativity, self-discipline, self-sufficiency, self-restraint, self-regulation and, above all, they have learned to be patient. Oh, so patient.

They have found their own routines and rituals to stay positive. They have developed the self-motivation required to get out of bed and shuffle to their ‘classroom’ two steps away. They have battled frustration, disappointment, loneliness, anxiety, disorientation, boredom and monotony – and they have won.

They are not the ‘lost generation’, sentenced to a life of catch up; they are superheroes, and they will be the cultural architects of a new world. They have developed new skills, attitudes and behaviours – and not to mention some reprioritised values – that will bring them success in the new paradigms in which we will live, learn, work and socialise, post-pandemic.

The question is: is our education system ready for their return? Is it ready to review its own values and priorities now? The teachers are ready, of course they are! They have worked tirelessly to maintain a continuity of learning and parity of provision this past year. Teachers across the land have gone above and beyond to stay in contact with their students, to teach, support and care for them – to keep the learning going, sometimes in school, oftentimes remotely at home – and in many cases juggling both synchronously. And they will be so ready to see them all again in person, when they will praise them and credit them for how much they have grown, physically, mentally and emotionally. They will know only too well of the hardships their pupils have endured and the resilience they have shown to make it to the other side, and they will value their emotional wellbeing and their self-worth more than ever.

Will these young, brave superheroes view school differently when they return to its routines and customs? Will they come to see how the traditional criteria against which they were being measured is inadequate now? I think they will. The genie is out of the bottle.

I think they will recognise what many of us have known for a long time: that the dominant practices and methods of measurement are anachronistic, ‘academic’. In prioritising the visible, measurable attainment and progress of our students – largely in academic disciplines – have we failed to recognise and comment meaningfully on the invisible and immeasurable growth they have made, in school, in home, in life?

The culture of a school, with its customs, norms and values, will seem smaller now, whilst every member of its community will have grown – in ways that will not be visible if we persist in using the traditional instruments of calibrating, sorting and ranking. Nothing stunts growth more than sorting and ranking by narrow criteria, and how schools adapt to stay relevant now will define not only our children’s futures, but the future of school itself. We have such an opportunity to create a new culture, with new assumptions, new values and new customs and norms that shape how we do things in school.

For one hundred and fifty years, since Forster’s Elementary Education Act, school has delivered an assembly line of learning, built on a factory approach of mass production, standardisation and quality control. The 1870 Act codified and assumed Crown responsibility for education. It mandated inspectors to hold schools accountable for their teaching of reading, writing and arithmetic. And it was a benevolent act, certainly: it brought children out of workhouses and lowly paid jobs they were much too young to be doing. It gave them an education, an opportunity to develop white collar skills, a chance to better themselves, to climb out of poverty in many cases; just as it continues to improve the life chances of students today, bringing them an academic education that can open doors and bring prosperity (notwithstanding I have always championed vocational alternatives too).

But it is now undeniably true that the dominant three Rs are neither delivering the premium skills required by today’s employers, nor are they doing justice to the myriad ways in which children are smart, and the innate potential they possess. Improving literacy and numeracy may have been the ultimate aim in 1870, creating a more educated workforce for a more prosperous economy, but new skills are required now – and new attitudes too. Qualities and capacities like problem-solving, creativity, resourcefulness, resilience – these are highly-prized and they are precisely what our children have been developing during this past year, because they have had to.

I am optimistic about the future. What a child shows she knows in an exam was once held to be an accurate measure of her actual learning ability, but now this has to change – it would be risible to suggest otherwise, given how much our children have grown and matured this year, without exams. School leavers once defined themselves by their academic grades alone, but this will change too. They will know, I hope, that they are so much more than their grades, they are bigger, stronger. This cycle, this culture, will now be revealed for the self-limiting, self-fulfilling myth that it always was. You cannot capture a child’s growth – and education should be about growth – in an academic school report focused predominantly on their measurable efforts and attainment (compliance and knowledge retention). I am convinced that we will move from this myopic view of attainment and progress, to broaden the way in which we view the ‘whole child’ in the future. And this is such an exciting prospect, to build a new culture of growth, of whole development, recognizing the importance of the very qualities that have brought our children through this unsettling chapter in all of our lives.

The invisible, immeasurable attitudes and behaviours children will have developed by themselves during this uniquely challenging year must be seen and appreciated in full technicolor now, for they are the very qualities they will need in the new world – a world in which school itself now needs to catch up.

And catch up it must, because the children returning to school deserve something new.



Celebrating and supporting the ‘Whole Teacher’

It is not often that I use the word ‘inspirational’ when referring to a particular speaker at a conference or webinar I have attended. I can think of a handful of speakers who have truly inspired in the past. Many have informed, instructed, perhaps even rejuvenated, but I’m hard to inspire.

It is even rarer for me to attend a conference where not one but all of the speakers have inspired me.

And it is a true one-off when I have been fortunate enough to host such a webinar, where every speaker I interviewed was so engaging that I forgot I was supposed to be asking them questions.

Such was my experience at a recent virtual conference entitled ‘The Whole Teacher’, which I hosted on behalf of Discovery Education and the NAHT.

The conference began with an inspiring speech from NAHT President, Ruth Davies. Ruth described so eloquently and compassionately the challenges endured – and conquered – by her fellow school leaders and teachers over the last few months of lockdown. Her vision for the year ahead was filled with optimism and hope.

I was then able to interview NAHT General Secretary, Paul Whiteman. Paul spoke with such honesty and wisdom, recognising the sterling efforts of NAHT members across the country, as they work so hard to provide the very best provision possible in these unprecedented times, where certainty and control – surely essential tools for any school leader to be able perform their role – have been in short supply. Paul’s understanding, good humour and compassion for everyone in the profession showed that NAHT members have a truly inspiring and authentic voice speaking up for them in Whitehall.

My next guest was the brilliant Professor Tim O’Brien, an experienced teacher, lecturer, research professor and psychologist who has spent many years working in the field of wellbeing. Tim’s inspiring words will have been both reassuring and empowering for the 450 educators who attended, I am sure. I could talk to Tim for hours, and have been lucky enough to do so on several occasions. His ability to shed light on our wellbeing and mental health in ways that develop our understanding and self-efficacy is refreshing and very empowering.

Next up was Marijke Miles, experienced school leader and NAHT National Executive member. Marijke has led special schools for many years and she spoke so eloquently about her experiences in leading and motivating teams and helping to meet the complex needs of students. Her enthusiasm for the job and her eloquence in capturing why teachers teach and why leaders lead was inspirational.

I was then able to interview Ruth Davies again, where she spoke so wisely about listening to – and trusting in – our ‘inner voice’. The high-blame, low-risk culture Ruth spoke of, which has been forced upon many school leaders in a climate of hyper-accountability, will have been recognised by many attendees, I’m sure. Ruth called for all of us to place our trust in teachers again, arguing that now, more than ever, we can turn to teachers and school leaders to guide us out of the extraordinary situation we have endured and onto brighter and better times ahead.

The day ended with a walk through the Discovery Education Pathway Programme, a new holistic programme which supports the professional and personal development of educators, launching in schools in September.

The event was entitled ‘The Whole Teacher’ and with the help of our extraordinary speakers, I think we did the title justice.

You can watch a recording of the whole event on the NAHT’s Facebook page, including the technical hitch at the beginning, when the internet performed its usual trickery and sent our hearts racing for a moment, but in true teacher fashion, we kept going and recovered well!

My sincere thanks to the guests who all gave up their time freely and to the fabulous team at EY3 Media who, together with my colleagues at Discovery Education, helped make the day possible.

Here’s to many more discussions we will be holding about how we can best support #thewholeteacher. It’s about time.

You can find out more about the NAHT & Discovery Education Pathway Programme here